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'Catch Icebreaker' mission. How teacher became mate on nuclear-powered vessel

Marina Starovoitova has been 'at seas' since 2005

MOSCOW, August 5. /TASS/. Russia is the only country, which has a fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers - the 50 Let Pobedy, the Yamal, the Vaigach, the Taimyr, and the Sevmorput LASH carrier and container ship. Female crew members are not rare. But a captain is. Marina Starovoitova was lucky to become the Yamal’s second mate.

After party right on board

"You know, the sea is catching," Marina told me as we met.  "Take for example the Kara Sea, where we work most often. It is cold, with frequent fogs and storms, it’s normally under ice, and in the Ob Bay water is always murky. Or take the Barents Sea - the color of aquamarine, crystal with turquoise, but very severe. Every sea has its own character, like every ship or every person".

She has been 'at seas' since 2005. Right from a school, where she had worked as a teacher of the Russian Language and Literature, Marina came to Murmansk. She prepared all papers, passed an interview with the Murmansk Shipping Company, which back then managed the entire civil fleet in Murmansk, and started working on the Sevmorput nuclear-powered container carrier as a keeper on duty. This is how her marine career began. A coincidence? No, she says, it’s the fate.

"At some point it was clear to me - my life must be connected with the sea. You may speak about it endlessly, it’s the unpredictable force to see and to feel. I fell in love with the sea, with the spirit of adventure. Besides, my name Marina means 'marine', " she said.

The Sevmorput is the world’s only nuclear-powered container carrier. Marina worked on it for two years. In 2007, the vessel stayed at port for a long time, the crew was released. In 2008, the nuclear icebreaker fleet, including the Sevmorput, changed the manager from the Murmansk Shipping Company for the Atomflot state-run agency.

Like most of the crew, for the time after those reforms, the girl went to work on the transport fleet. Vessels there were mostly bulkers and tankers.

"I worked at the canteen, served food, washed dishes, though it was clear this is not what I want to do," Marina said. "I took the risk of entering the Makarovka in St. Petersburg".

The Makarovka is the Admiral Makarov State University of Sea and River Fleet in St. Petersburg. Marina was a part-time student, continued working at sea, and graduated in 2014. She got the diploma of a navigator. She continued working at the cargo fleet, though in a different status.

Female first mate

"I applied to the Association of Marine Captains, passed a training course and got a certificate of a 1st class sailor. I used to work like all other sailors on the deck, participated in berthing, cleaned the holds," Marina said. "I was ready for any work, got used to work since childhood".

In childhood, Marina spent summers in the village. Work and discipline were nothing new to her. She took decisions and was stubborn enough to progress from a sailor to the first mate - thus, she took a position, which follows the position of captain. However, assistant captain on a bulk ship with a crew of only 18-20 people was not the limit. Marina continued the education.

"Working in the Arctic was not new to me, remember, I began sailing on the container carrier, which also sailed along the Northern Sea Route. Later on, on cargo ships we went to Sabetta, called on the Kotelny (Island), on Franz Josef Land, and even sailed along the Northern Sea Route to China. We were escorted by icebreakers, of course. At a certain moment, I realized I want to try working on an icebreaker".

At the other end of tow rope

While transport vessels carry cargo, icebreakers assist the transport fleet through the ice: they lay a route, so that vessels, which cannot sail in heavy ice conditions, could use it.

There are two options: either a vessel sails or it is towed. There are two variants of towing: either on a short tow rope of up to 40m, or right next to the icebreaker - when a vessel is adjusted to the icebreaker, pushing its bow into a special cutting in the icebreaker’s stern.

"Towing must be made with high precision, at a given speed and direction, so that not to damage the vessel. I did not have such experience. It is done the following way: the huge icebreaker pulls to the vessel 'takes it into the stern cutting,' the sailor on duty gives signals - 'left' or 'right,' they get connected, and the towing rope adjusts the vessel’s bow to the icebreaker. Doing it at first time was very complicated and I was so nervous, but it was so interesting! Later on, everything is fine, and here is the excitement: you can see a huge icebreaker 150 meters long and 30 meters wide, you get closer, and - yes, here the vessel is towed," Marina said proudly.

Marina has been working as the Yamal’s second mate for one year. She is responsible for the route planning and control, work with electronic and paper maps. She watches the ice, meteorology forecasts, ice structures, depths, and the escorted vessels. Every step is registered in the ship’s log.

"For example, we often work in the Ob Bay, and there we have certain reporting points, where we follow up the situation and send out reports as we pass those points," Marina told us. "This work requires maximum attention. While on a transport vessel you just lay a route and follow it, on an icebreaker you are permanently searching for the best route, as you are not on your own, you have other ships following you. If the ice is complicated, we tow up the vessels.

We ask Marina, whether she dreams of becoming a captain. She smiles.

"He’s a bad sailor if he does not dream of becoming a captain. Well, seriously - it is huge responsibility to be the first mate or even more - to be a captain. The position requires experience, and much work. I love what I am doing, but won’t take guesses - time will show, and the sea will show".

'How I caught up with the icebreaker'

When Marina was finalizing formalities at Atomflot and passed medical tests, the Yamal icebreaker, where she was supposed to work, left the port. She had to ‘hitchhike.’

"You know, it was like in a movie, a mission dubbed 'How I caught up with the icebreaker.' A towboat from Murmansk took me and my colleagues to a tanker, which was bound for the icebreaker. And then down the pilot ladder, carrying the bags, we got into a boat, which the Yamal had sent for me, and then upwards, to the icebreaker’s deck," Marina said.

Climbing and descending along the pilot ladder is nothing special for a sailor, she added.

On board the Yamal, she was welcomed warmly. Many crew members had been at sea with her, or studied together at the Makarovka.

"It’s always a challenge to come to a new ship - how the crew will meet you. While climbing on the Yamal, I expected meeting people who I knew, and I met them, I was happy. With some of them we used to work on the Sevmorput, with others we studied at the university. I cheered up. All the navigators were very friendly, professionals, showed everything to me. My teacher was very good - Sergei Gerasimov - the first mate, I used to take his course. Emotionally I felt comfortable, and this is very important!"

Every day on an icebreaker is divided into six equal parts - four hours of duty. Everyone is on duty for four hours in every eight hours. Marina’s shifts begin every day at 8 in the morning and at 8 in the evening.

Time after shifts

"During time off, preferences differ, but I prefer the gym. We have two gyms: a big gym for games, where I play volleyball, and the second - a small one - for workout. We have a pool with sea water, which is warmed. A huge library, a chess club, and we all are recommended to stroll on the heli pad," Marina said.

Later on, she adds - every free minute she tries to chat with the son. Artem, aged 9, waits for mom in the Unecha town, the Bryansk Region. Marina comes from that town. Her family resides there. Every time she leaves the town for Murmansk to begin another voyage.

"Nowadays, voyages are four months long, but back on the transport fleet they could be twice longer, and the longest was 11 months and a few days. It was tough to be away from the family. The cell and the Internet save us. At times, I do homework with my son on WhatsApp. When asked about the most complicated part - I say it’s being away from the family, when you understand that the next hug would be only in 120 days!"

A nuclear icebreaker may remain at sea for five years without refueling. It calls a port only to rotate the crew and resupply the food.

The Yamal’s smile

The Yamal icebreaker was named and launched in 1992. The construction began in 1986 at the Baltic Shipyard as an upgraded version of Arctic 10521 project, named Oktyabrskaya Revolutsiya (October Revolution). In 2000, the icebreaker made an expedition to the North Pole. The Yamal is the ninth vessel, which has reached the North Pole. It has made 48 voyages to the Earth’s top.

"No other icebreaker in the world has smiling shark jaws. The icebreaker is identified by this toothed smile," Marina said. "The shark’s jaws appeared there in 1994, when the icebreaker took children from across the globe to the North Pole. Since then, the jaws are smiling to other vessels. This smile is a world-known brand already."

Sailors say every ship has it aura. The Yamal gives a feeling of confidence, Marina said. The icebreaker’s two reactors are of 75,000hp. The ship cuts its way through 2.5-meter thick ice. Pitching and rolling are typical for ships, and vibration is typical for icebreakers. It grows when the vessel works in the ice.

"Some people, who are on an icebreaker for the first time, may feel uneasy when the ice cracks and breaks, but I’ve got used to it."

Navigators say: never turn your back on a porthole not to make the sea mad.

"Right, I know this sign, but on icebreakers it is not easy to observe it - the captain, mates and navigators must look forward and backwards to watch vessels in the caravan or towed ships. This is the marine truth, " she smiles. The smile is warm, and full of confidence.